Grassroots Activism for Clean Water in Macedonia
- General Issues
- Specific Topics
- Water Quality
- University of Southampton Students
- Scope of Influence
- End Date
- Spectrum of Public Participation
- Open to All or Limited to Some?
- Open to All
- Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
A look at Grassroots Activism for Clean Water in the Republic of Macedonia by citizens initiative 'Arsena' against government opposition.
Problems and Purpose
Following an earthquake, pollution of the Republic of Macedonia’s water supply has been occurring for 15 years with arsenic-rich rocks in contact with the water table. In 2012 the water was seemed dangerously toxic by the Institute of Public Health of the Republic of Macedonia as the concentration of arsenic exceeded the permitted limits of 10 micrograms per one liter of water, according to the propositions of The World Health Organization.  However due to the political landscape at the time the issue was quashed favouring a perception of prosperity, and poisoning of local water supplies with arsenic continued. The political landscape also led to the persecution of activists who attempted to call attention to the health crisis. False project starts done purely for positive media attention also hindered the development of any serious solution.
Background History and Context
The battle for clean water and public awareness of water toxicity levels in Macedonia has been an ongoing struggle for activists starting in 2006 with censored information and attacks to research.
Under the regime of right-wing populist party VMRO-DPMNE the issue was not only given little attention, but active measures were taken to prevent the issue gaining media reporting.
VMRO-DPMNE held power in Macedonia’s parliament from 2006 to 2016 and have been the party of president Gjorge Ivanov since 2009. The party has been accused of nepotism and authoritarianism and is currently undergoing a series of investigations against its leader Nikola Gruevshi and other high-ranking misters and officials, under the order of the Macedonian Special Prosecution. 
For VMRO-DPMNE environmental action could not be conducted at the risk to damaged perception of prosperity. It debunked claims against calls for improved quality of life by claiming advocate’s were pawns of the opposition.
Grassroot activists formed into a group named Арсена, or in British ‘Arsena’, named after the toxic water performed publicity stunts and conducted scientific measurements to try and enact both public awareness and change. In 2014 they launched commercially branded bottled water in order to reach national news. As the launch was labelled as commercial business not civil involvement it was able to receive press coverage and was not censored. At the event the water was revealed to be sourced from Gevgelija’s water supply and information about high arsenic levels was given. This brought the issue to the national media and prompted citizen awareness. 
Following a turnover of government and the involvement of international actors construction commenced of a new safe water supply system in February 2017.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The key factors/partners involved in the project of grassroot activism was a local activist group Arsena. As they are a grassroots community led organisation no public information exists as to their internal funding or donation structure. Public engagement costs included, posters, invitations, petitions, research, petitions. However, such data is not calculated and thus not provided.
After Arsena had raised public awareness the issue was made a priority for the incoming government in 2016. They with funding from outside bodies including the European Union Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, complete the build of new wells and water treatment costing 1,7 10,620 euros of which the European Union contributed with 195 thousand euros.  This was the first project completed under the EU EU campaign for you project.  The project was managed by The Republic of Macedonia’s government under the department of Transport and Communications with construction conducted over two years by the Bulgarian company "Hidrostroj" 
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Activists participating in campaigning for change came from local communities and groups aware of the pollution levels. A key aim of campaigning was to raise awareness to other citizens Macedonia and encourage them to join in participating In lobbying; as well as promoting awareness of the issue and calls for change.
All citizens were encouraged to get involved in the project. After the promotional event of Arsena bottled water was covered by a national level TV company then activism increased as citizens of Gevgelija became aware of the issue. This prompted not only a rush to buy bottled water but also a recruitment drive of grassroot activists.  Mobilisation of individuals also occurred online with Arsnea hosting a Facebook page on which it promotes information.
Methods and Tools Used
Several forms of action were taken to ensure the end result. These included:
In 2014 Citizen activist group Arsena attempted to place billboards in Gevgelija to share scientific information about the toxic levels of pollution in the water. However, despite securing funds for rent, signing contracts and negotiating for months Arsena were banned from displaying the information and call for action. 
Arsena also conducted their own research which was shared openly and online. The report highlighted how “Macedonia shares the same situation as the other SEE countries, where poverty, financial and geographical barriers are major factors that lead to a lack of access “. It also presented data on public health and disease. 
In February 2014 Arsena promoted a mock brand of mineral water named after themselves. They called media to gather for the launch and instead of carrying out the presumed business presentation they presented bottles filled with tap water from Gevgelija. They then proceeded to tell reporters that the ordinary tap water contained dangerously high levels of arsenic. In conjunction the group presented health data from the local area including cancer levels and mortality rates.  As this event was misreported as a commercial gathering it was not stopped by government censorship as other information sharing attempts had been.
The civil intuitive also started petitions to try and encourage public involvement in which they demanded for the price of the water to be decreased until clean safe water was provided.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
For ten years between 2006 to 2016 the citizens imitative fought significant opposition from ruling right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE who controlled the Republic of Macedonia’s parliament and presidency. The Party had a strong focus on it’s prosperity and took significant efforts to appear to so to both it’s population and o the global stage.
 When environmental issues such as clean air and water arose, the government acted to put down campaigners claims as inaccurate rather than tackling the issue. This censorship made public interaction difficult as the issue wasn’t getting the coverage needed for outreach. However, despite this citizen initiatives such as Arsena acted to try and have their message heard.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The campaign by the citizens initiative was hugely successful and led to clean water becoming an adopted promise of the opposition party. Following the election of the Social Democratic Union a construction project commenced in February 2017. On the 7th November 2018, the authorities opened a new water supply facility that gathers water from three new wells and contains a purification unit and pipeline, providing clean safe water to 19,500 inhabitants.
Arsena declared on the 7th November that it had “completed it’s civic task” in succeeding in getting the authority “to acknowledge the existence of poison arsenic in Gevgelija water” and the creating of the new system. 
Social Democratic Union Minister for Minister of Transport and Communications - Goran Sugareski highlighted how the completed construction had helped solve Gevgelija “"worst problem” and hoped for health improvements that had suffered from “the decade's problem," 
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The study of Arsena’s work shows the successful work of direct citizen involvement in enacting change without institutional assistance.
All work conducted by Arsena was made open and free via social media and included in this was transparency as to their cause, campaign and objectives.
However overall the project faced a lack of transparency and openness due to government blocking of information.
Arsena’s work was entirely a grassroot campaign with activates working towards a coordinated aim. Work was conducted by activists as a self-empowered, self-represented form working towards a common goal. The group was fully inclusive and holds connection to community as well as informing and enlightening others as one of it’s key objectives. In this way it full upholds the ideas of participatory democracy. The campaign helped to increase levels of citizen activism in Macedonia by brining public attention to the cause.
The campaign faced major barriers from lack of government accountability in addressing public concerns. This coupled with tight censorship around matters portraying the government in a negative state meant that the project faced almost authoritarian opposition. This made citizen participation who were not politically aware difficult to initially achieve and limited the scope and effectiveness of campaigning.
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Lead Image: Promotional event for the mock brand of mineral water “Arsena, the water enriched with arsenic, directly from the taps of Gevgelija” in Skopje on February 17, 2014. Photo by Vanco Dzambaski, CC BY-NC-SA. https://goo.gl/VPc85g